The journeyman: In 3rd job in 3 years, new Syracuse defensive coordinator Scott Shafer looking for stability at SU
The only constant for new Syracuse defensive coordinator Scott Shafer over the past few years has been change.
For the third-straight year, Shafer will be a first-year coordinator under a first-year head coach in a different part of the country.
‘There’s been a lot of movement,’ Shafer said. ‘…There’s never a dull moment, that’s for sure.’
Under new head coach Doug Marrone, Shafer’s task is to resurrect the Syracuse defense, a unit with a similarly tumultuous recent past, marked by numerous personnel and coaching changes.
But for Shafer, that’s nothing new. When he was hired at Western Michigan in 2005 and Stanford in 2007, both were coming off one-win seasons. Western Michigan improved by six wins in the first year under Shafer, and Stanford by three wins.
So after only a one-year stint in Northern California, Shafer caught the eye of newly hired Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez in early 2008.
At the time, Michigan seemed like an obvious choice for Shafer, the son of a Midwest football coach who grew up immersed in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry
His hometown of Painesville, Ohio, near Cleveland, is 197 miles from Ann Arbor and 171 miles from Columbus. Shafer grew up in the heyday of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, during the apex of the Woody Hayes-Bo Schembechler battles. His younger brother, John, said nightly backyard football games growing up were always played out as Michigan vs. Ohio State.
Shafer’s father, Ron, was a longtime high school football coach in northern Ohio. He sent players to both Michigan and Ohio State, and he had contact with both Schembechler, the longtime Michigan coach, and Hayes, OSU’s head coach. When Ron underwent open-heart surgery in 1978, Schembechler sent a personal letter of encouragement to Scott and John.
So when Rodriguez came calling for the up-and-comer Shafer to take over the reins of his new defense in Ann Arbor, Shafer seized the opportunity.
‘Any coach in the country, especially coming up in the ranks like that, you’re going to go for it,’ said John Shafer, now a high school football and track coach near Cleveland.
But Michigan didn’t show the vast improvement that had become Shafer’s trademark. The unit finished ninth in the Big Ten for total defense, while the team finished 3-9 on the year – the most losses in 130 years of Michigan football.
Shafer resigned soon after the season, and he has been public about the philosophical differences he and Rodriguez had during the 2008 season.
‘I took the job for all the wrong reasons,’ Shafer said. ‘I took it because it was Michigan, it was the Big House, the tradition. All great reasons. But at the end of the day, it’s got to be a good fit for you as a coach, and the guys you’re working with on a daily basis.’
After Michigan, Shafer knew he had to change his approach in looking for a new job. As he spent the holidays with his family and went about picking his next destination, he put a much larger emphasis on compatibility within a coaching staff.
In Syracuse, Marrone was focusing on the same thing as he searched for his staff. He tabbed Shafer as his potential coordinator and went about calling people who knew him, to make sure he would be a good fit.
‘They were telling me, ‘You and he are the same type of guy. You and he have the same type of work ethic,” Marrone said at Shafer’s introductory press conference on Jan. 2. ‘Really, that’s how it started for us to get together and form this partnership and get our program together.’
Syracuse may not have a 100,000-seat stadium like Michigan, but that’s not what’s important to Shafer anymore. He said in defensive meetings that he and his fellow coaches, Derrick Jackson, Dan Conley and John Anselmo, will often finish each other’s sentences. After only a short time together, they’re all on the same page. The move to Syracuse has reminded him of the transitions at Western Michigan and Stanford.
‘Philosophically, things have meshed well so far,’ Shafer said. ‘More importantly, it’s fun to go to work with these guys. We’ve got guys who are fun to work with, they’re on the same page, they’re high-character, good family men. Good husbands, good parents. So I’m really enjoying the job.’
The Syracuse defense has been through its own share of changes in the last three years. Former SU coach Greg Robinson (who took Shafer’s former job at Michigan) coached the defense from 2005-06, his first two years at SU. He handed duties over to assistant coach Steve Russ in 2007, before taking it over again for his final season following Russ’ resignation.
In those final three years, Syracuse never finished in the top 100 in total defense. So in Shafer’s month of practice during the spring season, the focus has been back to basics. His 4-3 ‘attacking’ defense allows the players to act more on instinct and take advantage of athleticism, without getting too bogged down with a complicated new system.
‘Last year, we had a lot of read, react,’ defensive end Tony Perkins said. ‘This year it’s put your head down, put your hands up and go. I think that’s going to help us out.’
The 42-year-old Shafer often spends his practices intimately involved in drills. The former high school and college quarterback can often be seen throwing balls into his secondary. His high-energy, hands-on approach has breathed new life into the unit, players say.
‘He’s like a sparkplug,’ Perkins said. ‘He brings a fire to the defense that we never had before.’
After spring practice draws to a close with Saturday’s spring game, Shafer can exhale after completing yet another transition. His new focus for the summer: getting to know the area around his new home in Fayetteville, N.Y. The family has been making inroads already: His son, Wolfgang, has joined the baseball team. His daughter, Elsa, takes cooking classes.
He may not be involved in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry he grew up with, but if Syracuse can give Shafer some stability, then he’s fine with that.
‘My wife and I, we’ve made that clear to one another that we’re really looking forward to getting to know Syracuse, from a long-term point of view,’ Shafer said.
Published on April 14, 2009 at 12:00 pm